January 13 – Leapin’ Rhaphidophoridae!

Today’s factismal: The noise given off by crickets is called stridulation (“shrill sound”).

There are a lot of people who don’t like crickets of any sort. They think that the crickets are dirty, filthy, disgusting critters with no redeeming social values whatsoever. Obviously, they’ve confused  crickets with politicians (or cockroaches) because crickets are among the most useful insects out there. Crickets clean our houses and fields by feasting on dead plants, fungi, and even eat their own dead. They help aerate the soil by digging burrows and fertilize it with their droppings. And while they do all this, they chirp a happy song in a process that scientists call stridulation (from the Latin for “shrill sound”).

A male field cricket. Despite their fearsome look, the spurs on his legs are not used to make sound! (Image courtesy Luis Fernández García)

A male field cricket. Despite their fearsome look, the spurs on his legs are not used to make sound!
(Image courtesy Luis Fernández García)

They do this not with their vocal chords (because they don’t have vocal chords – Jimminy was really a mute!) but by rubbing one wing against the other. The wings of a cricket are covered with fine serrations like a knife; when these flick against the wing, it acts like a big drum that makes and amplifies the sound. In many species, the rate and character of the chirping can be used to tell what the cricket has in mind. A male cricket’s “calling song” is loud and fast and intended to lure females near and drive males away. If another male gets too close, an aggressive “go away” song is heard. But if a female cricket wanders by, the male will sing a low and quiet courtship song. And if he is lucky in love, then he celebrates with a short “copulatory song” (usually sung in locker rooms).

But crickets in America are facing their worst nightmare right now. All of the best places to live and all of the good foods are being taken over by a pair of invasive camel crickets (weta) from Asia. In one survey done by citizen scientists like yourself, up to 88% of the houses had one of two species of Asian camel crickets while only 12% of the houses had a native camel cricket (which gets along better with our native crickets than the invaders do). So what can you do?

A Camel cricket, close up and personal(Image courtesy Your Wild Life)

A Camel cricket, close up and personal
(Image courtesy Your Wild Life)

Count crickets! Winter is the perfect time to look around and see what sort of cricket lives in your house. That’s because crickets and camel crickets have moved in from the cold and are easier to spot than they would be in a field or on a tree. If you spot a cricket or a camel cricket, take a picture of it and send the picture to the Camel Cricket Census. they are now in their third year of collecting data and hope to have results for the whole of the United States very soon. To reach them, chirp at:

January 12 – Squirrel!

Today’s factismal: The common tree squirrel can rotate its back ankles 180° in order to climb down a tree head-first.

Squirrels are fun, frolicsome, and fascinating critters. They jump from limb to limb in search of nuts and acorns that they bury in profusion and they crawl on the forest floor hoping to find some tasty insects, slugs, and small birds, or snakes.Because they move from climbing up to climbing down to crawling around with such frequency, they have developed some special adaptations. Perhaps the most interesting of these is their back ankles which rotate 180°; in effect, they can put their feet on backward. Though that would make them a little awkward if they did it on the ground, it is perfect for when they want to head down a tree head-first.

A squirrel using its adaptable ankles to balance on a fence (My camera)

A squirrel using its adaptable ankles to balance on a fence
(My camera)

But why would a squirrel want to go head-first down a tree? Because squirrels have a lot of things that like to feast on them. By going down head-first, they can keep an eye out for snakes, birds, raccoons, and automobiles to name but three. Automobiles are particularly deadly; the jerky, back and forth evasion pattern that gray squirrels have evolved to escape from predators in a forest makes it very hard to automobile drivers to avoid hitting the poor beast. As a result, the leading cause of death for gray squirrels in a city is being run over.

A black squirrel taking a break from the never-ending search for nuts (My camera)

A black squirrel taking a break from the never-ending search for nuts
(My camera)

Despite their predator problems, squirrels remain plentiful. In part, that’s because of their fecundity. Tree squirrels become sexually mature at six months and a female can have two litters of two to six baby squirrels each year. As a result, even though they only live a short time, squirrels are in no danger of dying out. But they do provide biologists with a puzzle: where do they live? What do they eat?

A grey squirrel finds himself out on a limb (My camera)

A brown squirrel finds himself out on a limb
(My camera)

And the biologists would like your help in solving the puzzle. All it takes is a pair of binoculars, a few hours, and a willingness to spy on our tree-dwelling neighbors. If you’d like to help, then why not join Project Squirrel? http://www.projectsquirrel.org/

January 11 – Albatross!

Today’s factismal: At 62 years old, the world’s oldest living banded bird is an albatross named Wisdom.

To any biologist, bird banding is one of the most useful and most basic tools. By simply slipping a little band of plastic onto a bird’s leg and asking citizen scientists to report where and when they see it, biologists can learn where species live, how far and how fast they migrate, what they eat, and how long they live. That last is particularly important when we are talking about the Laysan albatross Wisdom (as opposed to the wisdom of albatrosses).

Wisdom, the world's oldest known wild bird, inspects her newest egg (Image courtesy  Greg Joder, USFWS)

Wisdom, the world’s oldest known wild bird, inspects her newest egg
(Image courtesy Greg Joder, USFWS)

This beautiful bird has been tracked since 1953, using her band Z333 and that of her mate G000. Every year, she migrates from the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge and Battle of Midway National Memorial to Hawai’i and back again. And every year, she reunites with her mate and lays another egg. But adding a new chick is a tiring process that requires a full year to accomplish; thus far, Wisdom and her mate have added some 30 chicks to the population.  After a chick is hatched, it takes a full five years before it is mature enough to have chicks of its own. Because of their remote location and long lifespans, the Laysan albatross is fortunate; their population is a very healthy million birds. But not all albatross species are so fortunate; many are threatened or are even endangered due to habitat loss and hunting.

Wisdom incubating her egg (Image courtesy Daniel W. Clark, USFWS)

Wisdom incubating her egg
(Image courtesy Daniel W. Clark, USFWS)

I wouldn’t be able to post these pictures without the aid of citizen scientists and the professional scientists at the US Fish and Wildlife Service who track the health of our ecosystem and help us make sure that our great-grandchildren will be able to see the same beauty we do. To see more of their wonderful images, flow over to their Flickr streams (there’s one for each region): http://digitalmedia.fws.gov/cdm/Flickr

January 10 – Carnival of Death

Another Saturday, another adventure with Mary and Peter. This time, they are faced with the Terrible Swing of Doom in the Carnival of Death! Will they survive? (Doom, doom, DOOM!)

Mary and Peter were sitting at her kitchen table on a summer afternoon, intently working on their annual science carnival. Scattered on the table among the empty soda bottles and cookie crumbs were a number of large, colorful signs. “Come to the Carnival!” one advertised. “Win big prizes!” claimed another. Suddenly, an arm with a fresh plate of cookies intruded; Peter looked up to see Mary’s father grinning down at them.

“How are the plans for the carnival going?” he asked.

“Not bad,” said Peter. “We’ll have the ‘make your own slime’ booth, just like last year, and do ‘the Science of Magic’ show. And we’ll have a new ‘guess your number’ game based on that trick you taught us.”

“OK. Just remember to use the magician’s force!”

“And we’ll sell your cookies. Everybody likes them, so we’re sure to raise a lot of money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association with them. And it is going to be hot, so we’ll sell lots of lemonade and shaved ice. The only thing that we’re missing,” Mary said, “is a really good scary booth. Last year was nice, but dry ice and spooky noises aren’t all that scary.”

“Yeah,” added Peter. “There are scarier things at the movies all the time.”

“Let me think,” Mary’s father said. “You’d like something that’s scary. And, since it will be hot, getting wet might be nice, too. Right?” Seeing the two nod in agreement, he snapped his fingers. “I have just the thing! The Terrible Swing of Doom!”

“What’s that?” they asked.

“Let me show you! Meet me out in the backyard in ten minutes. That will give me a chance to set up.”

Ten minutes later, the pair went into the backyard. Mary’s father had taken the swings down from the swing set. In their place, he had hung a large water balloon on a three foot long string. He had placed two hula hoops on the lawn about three feet away from the swing set, one on either side. Beside him was a basket with more water balloons.

“Oh, good! You are right on time.” Dropping his voice, he asked “Are you ready to face the Terrible Swing of Doom!”

“What do we do?” replied Mary.

Pointing at one hoop, Mary’s father said “You stand here between the swing set and the hoop. Be sure that your heels are touching the rim of the hoop. Peter, you go stand on the other circle, just like Mary.”

Once the two had positioned themselves correctly, he continued. “This is a test of bravery. Mary, you are going to hold the water balloon up to your nose. On the count of three, you will gently release it. Don’t throw the balloon, just let it swing freely!”

Seeing Mary nod agreement, he continued. “Here’s the test: If Peter steps backward to avoid the water balloon or if he closes his eyes, then Mary wins and she gets to splash him with a water balloon. But if Mary steps backward to avoid the water balloon or closes her eyes, then Peter wins and he gets to splash her with a water balloon.”

“What if we both step backward?” asked Peter.

“Then I get to splash you both!” Mary’s father said before adding in his evil chuckle “Bwah-hah-hah!”

“And if neither of us steps backwards, then we get to splash you!” demanded Mary.

“Fair enough! Ready? Then let’s go!”

What do you think will happen? Do the experiment!





Mary held the balloon up to her nose and gently let it go. It swung over to Peter, slowly at first but gaining speed at the bottom of the curve. As it came toward him, Peter let out a yelp and stepped back.

“Hah!” said Mary.

“Stay right there!” her father said. “The game isn’t over yet!”

The water balloon swung back at Mary. As before, it sped up near the bottom and slowed as it neared her nose. Without meaning to, she stepped backward.

“Double hah!” said Peter. “There’s no way to win!”

“Yes, there is,” replied her father. “Double or nothing?”

Seeing their nods, he waved at Mary to move away and then stepped into the ring. He held the balloon up to his nose and let it go. The pair watched as the balloon swung out and away, then came back and gently touched Mary’s father on the nose before swinging back again.

“What you two forgot is that there is only so much energy. When you pull the balloon to your nose, you are giving it potential energy.”

“That’s ‘energy of position’, right?” asked Peter.

“Right. You moved the balloon higher in the Earth’s gravity; you gave it more energy. When you let go, gravity took over. Because the balloon is on a string, it can’t fall straight down, instead it swings back and forth. As the balloon goes lower, more and more of the potential energy is converted into kinetic energy, or energy of motion.”

“And that’s why balloons and kids go faster at the bottom of a swing!” said Mary.

“Right again,’ her father replied. “But then the string makes the balloon start to move up again. And that kinetic energy is turned back into potential energy. But, since you only gave the balloon enough energy to reach your nose, it can’t go any further. And it can’t get you wet, so you both moved back for no reason. Which reminds me…”

Reaching down, he grabbed four water balloons.

January 9 – Dark Sky, Bright Worlds

Today’s factismal: The Gemini South Telescope has imaged four planets circling a star 130 light years away!

It is no secret that these are exciting times for astronomers and planetologists. For the first time, we have telescopes capable of detecting planets around other stars; since the first extra-solar planet was detected by the (now defunct) Infrared Astronomy Satellite back in 1984, the number of exoplanets has grown to more than 1,500 confirmed and more than 5,000 possibles. Most of those new neighbors have been identified in just the past few years thanks to new tools such as the Kepler Space Telescope. But you don’t have to go into space to see the new planets; thanks to a large pair of telescopes here on Earth, you can see four of them on your computer!

HR 8799's four planets are ready for their close-up! (Image courtesy Christian Marois (NRC Canada), Patrick Ingraham (Stanford University) and the GPI Team)

HR 8799’s four planets are ready for their close-up!
(Image courtesy Christian Marois {NRC Canada}, Patrick Ingraham {Stanford University} and the GPI Team)

Known as HR 8799 B, C, D, and E (the star is HR 8799, the planets are B, C, D, and E), this planetary system is some 130 light years away. Put another way, if there are people living on one of those planets and they have a telescope that can make out the surface of the Earth, they could watch Chester A. Arthur dedicating the brand new Washington Monument in 1885! Our telescopes aren’t that good yet; the Gemini South Telescope’s Planet Imager can just barely make out the fact that HR 8799 has four big planets and we still can’t see any Earth-size planets. But seeing planets the size of Jupiter is pretty darn exciting.

Why? Because, in the words of one wag, “The Solar System is the Sun, Jupiter, and assorted junk”. Those big planets have most of the mass and, like big bullies everywhere, shove everything else around. In our Solar System, it is the interaction of Jupiter and Saturn that is responsible for most of the craters on the Moon and for many of our long-period comets. In other solar systems, big Jupiter-like planets have forced smaller, Earth-size planets as close to their suns as Mercury is to ours. Needless to say, those Earth-like planets aren’t all that Earth-like; they are more like a burned out charcoal briquette.

But briquette, super-Earth, or Jupiter-wannabe, if you discover a planet, you get to name it! And that’s what citizen scientists like you are doing right now – searching Kepler images for tell-tale signatures of planets around other stars. To join these planet hunters, go to Planet Hunters at:

January 8 – Blue Water

Today’s factismal: Plastic trash floating in the ocean weighs as much as 1,350 blue whales.

If you look around yourself, odds are you’ll see some plastic nearby. You’ll see plastic in the keyboard of your computer or wrapping your groceries or making the bottles that hold your medicine; plastic is fantastically useful and ubiquitous. But the problem with our use of plastic is that all too often it doesn’t get recycled the way it should. Instead of being tossed into the recycling bin, it gets tossed into the water which means that it ends up in the ocean.

This bird was rescued from an abandoned net that was floating in the Bay of Fundy (My camera)

This bird was rescued from an abandoned net that was floating in the Bay of Fundy
(My camera)

Scientists now estimate that there are more than five trillion pieces of plastic trash in the ocean; that’s more than seven hundred pieces of trash for every person on Earth! All told, that plastic trash weighs some 269,000 tons or about as much as 1,350 blue whales! Those pieces of trash range in size from small beads used in “exfoliating” scrubs and body washes to giant fishing nets used to catch tuna and cod. And though some of that plastic creates new hiding places and habitats for small fish and other critters, most of it just causes problems. The beads can fill up animals’ stomachs, preventing them from eating (which is why most manufacturers no longer use them). Small bottles can trap birds and crustaceans that were looking for their next meal. And nets can catch and drown marine mammals such as dolphins and other small whales. And all of it can grab onto other stuff floating in the ocean to form “plastiglomerates” that dirty up our shorelines and threaten the nesting habitats of sea turtles worldwide!

The mother sea turtle had to crawl over piles of plastic to lay her eggs (My camera)

The mother sea turtle had to crawl over piles of plastic to lay her eggs
(My camera)

So what can a concerned citizen scientist do about it? The first and easiest thing to do is recycle. That plastic can be recycled dozens or even hundreds of times and in some states you may even make money from it! The next thing to do is report it to a group like COASST (Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team); they are looking for people like you to report the sea birds and plastic trash that they find:
Or you could always send a sample of sea water to the Ocean Microplastics project. They hope to collect and compare water samples from around the world to help scientists understand what is happening to the small pieces of plastic in the ocean:

January 7 – One Flu Over

Today’s factismal: Nearly four million Americans have had the flu thus far this season.

Every year, the influenza virus strikes (actually, a couple of them strike). And every year, millions of Americans and hundreds of millions of people elsewhere come down with it. Though most of the people who come down with the flu eventually recover, hundreds of thousands of people die every year. This year the flu is particularly bad (though nowhere near as bad as it was in 1918). Instead of being the expected variant, this year’s strain is an H3N2 virus, a particularly nasty strain that is more severe in older people and children. Thus far, nearly 4,000,000 Americans in 43 states have come down with the flu.

Influenza is widespread in the 43 dark brown states (Image courtesy CDC)

Influenza is widespread in the 43 dark brown states
(Image courtesy CDC)

Fortunately, we are near the peak of flu season. The number of new cases this week is down slightly and is expected to drop further next week. And that is due in large part to the efforts of the CDC and other medical authorities; thanks to them, influenza is now the ninth most common cause of death instead of being the most common cause. That’s due in large part to the introduction of annual vaccines; though sometimes they don’t quite match the flu strains that occur (as happened this year), they still reduce hospitalizations from the flu by nearly 70%.

Do the "Dracula sneeze" (Image courtesy Arizona State University)

Do the “Dracula sneeze”
(Image courtesy the University of Arizona)

What can you do other than get a flu vaccine? Doctors recommend three things: First, wash your hands a lot and practice “vampire sneezes”; that helps reduce the spread of germs and keeps the flu form infecting others. Second, get the flu vaccine; that helps keep you healthy even when someone else forgets to cover their sneeze. And third, report your flu on Influenzanet (good for folks in the EU; strangely, the CDC doesn’t have anything like it for the US); that helps the doctors track the outbreak and send resources where they are needed.